Friday, May 21, 2010

Why I am a Feminist

Why do I call myself a feminist?

It is important to recognize the value of the insights produced by the culture of literary deconstuction and social criticism that is the essence of the feminist movement. This work, far from being over, has only just begun. The literature, artistic and academic, that this movement produces in the next hundred years will do a great deal to shape our civilization. With respect to that goal, this movement is in competition with a functionally illiterate consumer culture that uses sex to sell every product, internet pornography that validates the most disgusting degradation, and video games that perpetuate the idea that sex makes a woman worthless in the quest to determine the way in which both women and men in our society view love, family, sexuality, and child-raising. Given the power of the corporate mass-media structure that perpetuates this value system, this is David and Goliath. The funny thing is that most people still hold on to the myth that, “these days,” women have all the legal power to do whatever they want, and to get away with it. Why is that?

The modern stigma around the word “feminist” arose around the same time that basic feminist goals began to be realized in a practical way. Laws against domestic abuse and various forms of sexual harassment have existed in most of western society in some form or another since the 1970s, but these crimes were not considered “real” crimes, and the law was very rarely enforced. When, after a great deal of effort, it became reasonable for women to expect the police and courts to respect their rights and enforce the law, there was a tremendous backlash. In the 1990s, television, newspapers, and the popular mythology of movies and sitcoms were rampant with horror stories of false accusations and exaggerated claims of mistreatment. The potential for this new and terrible “privilege” (as the media depicted the expectation that our laws be obeyed) to be abused was the subject of much dismay. The fear that feminism was a fa├žade designed to conceal a legislative Trojan horse that deceitful, conniving women would use to render well-meaning, honest men jobless, fined, or imprisoned, was practically ubiquitous. This is why I make the distinction, ‘the “modern” stigma around the word feminism.’ There has always been a stigma, but it did not have this bizarre paranoid quality until the laws protecting women from abuse and harassment began to be taken seriously. If you read the papers in the ‘90s, you would have expected the streets to be awash with men who couldn’t find work because they had been accused of harassment, prisons overflowing with confused dates convicted of sexual assault for a friendly handshake gone awry, and whole corporations being taken over by scheming women aided by a draconian legal entity that they exploited to destroy any male obstacle in their career path.

The truth is that getting people to believe accusations of harassment, assault, abuse, and rape, is still difficult in many cases. Many authority figures don’t want to touch cases like these. There are exceptions. There are horror stories of lying and manipulation. But these are nowhere near as frequently occurring or as significant as the number of cases in which the police turn a blind eye, the boss looks the other way, reports are ignored, evidence is conveniently lost, and women in crisis are generally treated with suspicion bordering on hostility. We have not “come a long way.” We have come a very, very short way. It’s great that we’ve taken the steps we have, but western society would do well to raise its standards. The fact that, in many cases, women who are being abused and harassed can now expect the law to be enforced on their behalf isn’t exactly something we should be patting ourselves on the back about. It’s great that it’s happening, but it’s not an accomplishment.

Popular culture, although it cloaks itself in politically correct language and symbols, still perpetuates the idea that the act of penetration is an expression of dominance or ownership. The poisonous family dynamic that gives rise to abusive personalities and misogyny is more or less intact. This is hardly surprising. The ideas that an entire society has about gender and sexuality cannot seriously be expected to be transformed in a decade or two. Although we have seen a change in the language of our cultural narrative, a significant shift in values takes time. To expect the kind of progress demanded by the feminist movement to happen in less than several generations is unreasonable. The present change in language is, in many cases, a means of concealing the fact that our values have stayed the same. A cultural revolution of this nature takes generations of painstaking work. This work, especially in “post-feminist” western culture, is generally being done in the face of a great deal of scorn and derision. I know a lot of intelligent, educated, self-reliant women who hesitate to call themselves feminists because they’ve bought into the stigma that a “feminist” is an evil, conniving woman whose real goal is to obtain rewards that she has not earned at the expense of the men she fears and envies.

Whether political or philosophical, religious or atheistic, revolutionary or conservative, what unites feminists is the concentrated effort to create a literary culture of women. I stress “literary,” because this has been a primary focus of the feminist movement from its inception. Men have a long-standing literary history going back thousands of years, simply because it was not considered essential for women to read and write in many cultures. Over the course of generations, men developed a sense of historical identity, evolving various philosophies based on the insights produced by a sustained, self-critical, literary culture. It has only been very recently that women have entered the conversation and began to take part in the “discussion” that is western philosophy and literature. It is reasonable to expect that this will change the form and content of that dialogue, and we are only just beginning to see these changes.

This gives feminism an advantage. A male-dominated literary culture has been evolving, without any historical antecedent, for a long time. The precedent set by western man necessarily informs the evolution of feminist literary culture. I am reminded of Heinrich Agrippa’s critique of the idea that Eve, being derived from Adam’s rib, was less valuable as a person than her husband. Agrippa argued that the laws of heaven were harmonious with the laws of nature. When we boil down a substance, we remove its impurities. Eve, being created from the human body, was more pure, according to Agrippa, than Adam, being created from the clay of earth. Feminist literary culture is likewise derived from a centuries old intellectual foundation that was built by men, not because of any particular biological advantage, but because they were allowed to be educated. Feminist culture is critical of the values which guided the construction of that edifice, but the smart feminist still reads Freud, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Augustine, and their compatriots and learns from what they have to say.

There are certainly ignorant people who identify as feminists and don’t want to read any books they disagree with, who can’t find value in anything that doesn’t validate their uncritical emotional responses, and who are generally disgusted by anything produced by men, but they don’t get to sit at the adult table in this discussion. The culture of literary and social criticism that has always been at the core of feminism is totally dependent on the willingness of the people involved to read books and examine ideas that contradict their deepest values and beliefs, and to think critically about the ones that appear to validate the same. People who can’t do that aren’t really participating. If we were talking about geography, nobody would bring up the flat earth society, so when we’re talking about serious feminism, the fact that these people are all that its detractors can focus on reveals the weakness of their position.

To deliberately ignore the insights and social critique produced by the feminist movement out of fear that it will somehow invalidate the philosophical and intellectual work of generations of male philosophers, leaders, and innovators is patently absurd. To expect that movement to be alive, healthy, and to realize its goals of social justice for women without the input of intelligent men is silly as well. To deny being a “feminist” out of fear of being labeled a radical, out of fear of being conflated with an ignorant semi-mythological minority of haters, or out of the belief that social justice for women has already been achieved, is equally stupid and cowardly.

We need men and women who will speak, write, create, and produce the kind of spiritually and intellectually stimulating material that has the power to change the values of our society and the course of our civilization. The benefits of living in a culture in which people think critically about the reality they are presented with, penetration is not a form of degradation, sex is not an expression of ownership, and value of a person, the work they do, and what they produce is judged on the merits of the individual, apply to men and women alike. That’s the kind of world I want to live in. That’s why I am a feminist.